by MIKE ORLOCK
There was a time when the Academy Awards were a big deal. I’m old enough to remember when the TV broadcast of the Oscars was as hyped and watched as the Super Bowl. Hosted by Bob Hope or Billy Crystal or some other celebrity du jour, the laughably long spectacle celebrating Hollywood glamour and excess, complete with gaudy production numbers and rambling acceptance speeches, was ready-made grist for the comedy mills the next morning. But millions of people took it seriously and tuned in.
These days, the Oscars are just another awards show in a long line of awards shows that dominate TV schedules during the winter months. The Emmys, the Grammys, the Tonys, the Golden Globes, the SAGs – they blur into each other.
Still, I pay attention to the nominations, the surprises and the snubs, comparing my own favorites with the films and artists who made the cut. With that in mind, permit me to indulge in the time-honored subjunctive, “If I Had a Vote” – not to scold the academy for overlooking those I thought should have been nominated, but to choose from the list of those under consideration. This, then, is my ballot for the major awards for this year’s Oscars, set for March 27.
BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR AND ACTRESS
These categories are usually crammed with surprises, and this year is no exception. There’s often a mix of recognizable names and unknown newcomers vying against each other. Troy Kotsur, for example, whom nobody had heard of before his work in CODA, is up against ubiquitous Farmers’ Insurance pitchman and Academy favorite G.K. Simmons in Being the Ricardos. These are the categories where venerated performers can be honored for a lifetime of good work (think Sean Connery winning for The Untouchables in 1987 for his first and only nomination) or where dynamic young actors announce themselves with authority (Meryl Streep in The Deer Hunter – the first of her 21 nominations).
Everyone nominated is deserving in these categories, but my votes would go to Kodi Smit-McPhee for The Power of the Dog and Aunjanue Ellis for King Richard. Smit-McPhee has the advantage of being co-lead in his film, unlike his fellow nominees. The Power of the Dog is as much about his character as Benedict Cumberbatch’s, and the kid gives a pitch-perfect performance as a gangly, awkward tenderfoot who’s more cunning and ruthless than anyone realizes. Ellis’ Brandy Price, as the devoted mother to tennis stars Venus and Serena Williams, is the maternal heart of her film. She gets one great scene in particular that is the definition of a supporting role, and she aces it.
BEST ACTOR AND ACTRESS
Benedict Cumberbatch is the presumed favorite to win his first Oscar as cruel rancher Phil Burbank in The Power of the Dog, although there is strong support for Will Smith in King Richard, whose time might finally be at hand. I also admire Javier Bardem’s performance as Desi Arnaz in Being the Ricardos, and Denzel Washington was nothing short of mesmerizing in The Tragedy of Macbeth.
My vote, however, goes to Andrew Garfield in Tick, Tick … Boom! Garfield has been nominated for his work once before (Hacksaw Ridge), but his turn as Jonathan Larson, the struggling artist behind the Broadway musical Rent is the kind of performance that’s career defining, such as Robert De Niro’s work in Raging Bull or Jack Nicholson’s in One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest.
I don’t know whether there is a clear favorite among the women nominated this year. Three of them (Nicole Kidman, Olivia Coleman and Penelope Cruz) are previous Oscar winners. Jessica Chastain is a previous nominee. Only Kristen Stewart is new to this game, and her performance as Princess Di in Spencer is strong enough to make a weak movie worth seeing.
My vote, however, goes to Chastain for her portrayal of televangelist Tammy Faye Bakker in The Eyes of Tammy Faye. She made me, glib cynic that I am, actually care about a woman whom I had regularly ridiculed back when she was shilling for dollars with her husband, Jim, on TV. That’s some acting!
BEST DIRECTOR AND PICTURE
These two awards usually go hand in glove, as occurred last year when Chloé Zhao and her film Nomadland both won Oscars. It doesn’t always happen that way, however, and my votes this year in these categories reflect that because the director who made my choice for Best Picture wasn’t even nominated.
That woman is Sian Heder, and her film CODA is my pick for Best Picture. It’s a baudy, irreverent and ultimately uplifting story of a young woman born to deaf parents who has dreams of making it as a singer. You can see it streaming on Apple TV, and I hope Heder picks up a consolation Oscar for her screenplay in addition to the big one for this film.
So whom would I select for Best Director then? Art house favorite Paul Thomas Anderson? Mr. Hollywood Blockbuster, Steven Spielberg? Rising Japanese auteur Ryusuke Hamaguchi? Actor/director/writer/producer Kenneth Branagh?
My vote goes to Jane Campion (The Power of the Dog), who lost to Spielberg almost 30 years ago when Schindler’s List bested The Piano. As the only woman ever nominated for a second time in this category in almost a century of Oscars, let’s just say she’s due.
In another lifetime, Mike Orlock wrote film reviews for the Reporter/Progress newspapers in the western suburbs of Chicago. He has also taught high school English, coached basketball and authored three books of poetry. He currently serves as Door County’s poet laureate.